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Thread: Can you teach musicality?

  1. #1

    Default Can you teach musicality?

    The other day, my mandolin teacher told me that he could teach technique, but musicality was the “one thing he couldn’t teach.”

    This idea really stuck with me! I teach visual art to kids, and in my field—at least among the people I work with-- we generally consider creativity and interpretation to be teachable skills.

    I’m interested in what other mandolinists think. How do you define musicality? Do you think musicality is teachable? Have you successfully taught a sense of musicality, to yourself or someone else, and how?

    -Julia


    PS. First post in the Cafe! Let me know if I went about this right...

  2. #2

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Yes. As Evelyn Glennie has said, listening/hearing is a special way of touch. Sensitivity, empathy and imagination can be developed via many methods.

    However, this is not suggesting that anyone/everyone, such as your teacher perhaps, is adept with such insight and tools.

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    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by clicketyclack View Post
    The other day, my mandolin teacher told me that he could teach technique, but musicality was the “one thing he couldn’t teach.”
    .
    Well, you can't make a person more naturally musically talented than they are.

    BUT

    You can help a person learn the craft of being a musician, and often that includes being a good example of having "musicality".

    My teachers definitely believed that musicianship could be taught.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    That's an interesting question. The Webster definition of musicality is "sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music". I don't think talent can be taught. It's something that is within you.

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  8. #5

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Obviously, not all possess the touch, but to lesser and greater extent - aptitude, skill, sensitivity, knowledge, intuition (talent) can be evoked.

    *CC, perhaps apply your experience in visual art - facilitating seeing and communication techniques in the visual arts - is no different.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by Lucas View Post
    That's an interesting question. The Webster definition of musicality is "sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music". I don't think talent can be taught. It's something that is within you.
    I agree...but talent can be encouraged to grow, and often a small amount of well-nurtured talent can in the long run achieve better musical goals than a more talented person that does NOT do the work.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    I think you can teach musicality, but I'm not sure it can be decoupled from technique. In other words, if you can't first play the notes, it doesn't matter how soulfully you pluck your strings or blow into your horn.

    Once you've got the notes down, you can worry about dynamics, creative tempo interpretations, improvisation if appropriate, and all the other things that separate "performing" from "practicing in public" as an old teacher used to say.

    And talent can't be decoupled from dedication and practice. I dare say I have more talent than dedication. I made leaps and bounds when my college saxophone practice was structured and guided. Without practice, I still have the same innate talent I did circa 2008, but my technique -- and my ability to perform musically -- has suffered.

    One last thought: Musicality comes from being an avid listener too. If all you ever listen to is baroque classical, you probably won't be able to play Charlie Parker licks with the prescribed musical language, and vice versa.

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  14. #8

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by Drew Streip View Post
    ...if you can't first play the notes, it doesn't matter how soulfully you pluck your strings or blow into your horn.
    As a general statement, this I would disagree with.

    The "notes" are the conventions we communicate with (specific genres, forms, etc). But I would argue that musicality can and often does function or constitute faculties outside or apart from this realm of convention. I.e, one can be highly musical without being understood or interpreted within a given system of musical form. History is rife with such examples.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    I have observed that timing seems impossible to teach to some. You may be able to hit all the notes but without timing, the hot licks aren't worth a lick. I wonder if someone is tone deaf, could they learn to play by ear?
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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by catmandu2 View Post
    *CC, perhaps apply your experience in visual art - facilitating seeing and communication techniques in the visual arts - is no different.
    I've been thinking about this too! Here are some of the things visual artists do to improve their visual communication skills…

    To improve creativity: Iterate on a single idea in several different ways before settling on a final outcome. Experiment with different media and methods. Make friends with, and make work with, other artists.

    To improve “instinctual” grasp of technique or visual communication: make copies of masterworks you like. Look at works that interest you and try to reverse-engineer “what works” about them. (Similar to what Drew said... a good musician is a good listener, and a good artist is good at "seeing"!)

    To improve conscious grasp of visual literacy / communication: take a class or read a book on the subject. One particular book I’m thinking of is “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud—it’s a primer on visual communication that starts from the very, very basics and goes to explain more complex ideas (ex. “If you light a character’s face from below, you can imply a sense of horror or fear.”)

    The thing is, I’ve certainly found children’s primers on musical communication that explain the very basics of musicality… I remember growing up with a book/CD combo that explained “how” Carnival of the Animals was able to evoke the feelings of certain animals so well, for example. But are there any well-known primers for adults that go into more complex territory? I’d be curious to do some reading if that were the case.

    Quote Originally Posted by catmandu2 View Post
    [...]one can be highly musical without being understood or interpreted within a given system of musical form. History is rife with such examples.
    Are there any specific examples you have in mind?

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    I might be proof you can't, I think of musicality of "knowing where to go next" whether that be imitating, improvising or composing.
    Great song writers weather they have good musical performance technique ( they almost always do) or not, know how songs in Western music work. Carol King, Lennon and McCartney, Hank Williams, Gillian Welch, are perhaps some examples. Performers like Hendrix or Grisman or Rice or Thile or Ornette Colman, Richie Havens, know how to count, how to breath, what intervals will be hopefully more interesting especially when playing other peoples music.
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  20. #12

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by jim simpson View Post
    I have observed that timing seems impossible to teach to some. You may be able to hit all the notes but without timing, the hot licks aren't worth a lick. I wonder if someone is tone deaf, could they learn to play by ear?
    My dad veers off key when singing more than two notes into any given tune, and in over 10 years of hearing me practice the cello has maintained the distracting habit of slapping his leg "to the beat" of whatever I'm practicing... note the quotes around "to the beat". Despite this, from what I remember of his short-lived love affair with the guitar, he was able to compose and play tunes just fine. ???

    Clearly more experimentation is needed on my end. He can certainly recognize songs, which means he can distinguish between different rhythms and melodies-- seems like something just gets mixed up in the process of replication.

  21. #13

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by clicketyclack View Post
    Are there any specific examples you have in mind?
    To illustrate my point would entail a dive into music history, sociology, art and philosophy as this involves engaging in the exercise - what is music? So if I threw up examples like Crumb, Varese, the New York School or European Improvisational scene it would be rather futile without context.

    One thing to consider is the observation by Boulez - "the ear is 50 years behind the eye" (paraphr).

    But, perhaps check out the last youtube link in my signature - gamelan influenced piece by joe westerlund, for example. I have heard it said that many westerners cant relate and therefore prbly dont consider music such as gamelan to be very musical. This will illustrate how culture and convention usually dictates our aesthetic experience and frame of representational reference. In studies I've suggested above, handling this ethnocentrism, cultural bias and other limitations in perspective is fundamental. So that's where a discussion on the topic would begin.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    If you can define the elements that constitute 'musicality', it can be taught. If its wrapped up in 'talent', which itself appears fairly undefinable, then you're stuck where you are. You don't have it, you can't get it.

    I don't really believe that though.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Yes you can teach musicality. The people we think of as having it naturally still learned it from their environment. Something as simple as staying on the beat is part of musicality. If you get a student to keep a good beat they will hear how much better things sound. Discernment is a key part of musicality and it can be taught. The rest is chops and taste: the chops to play what you have discerned will produce sound to your taste.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    To keep with the analogy to visual arts—

    In learning to draw you really need to learn to see. To play music, you also need to listen and hear. A large part of what musicality is, I think, to use whatever technique you are able to muster to play or sing and convey emotion. Even at the most rudimentary a musician should aspire to that ability and should be able to phrase a melody to that goal. Extend that understanding to the art of acting. You can speak a phrase in a monotone or you can speak it in multiple ways to communicate to others a feeling. Music is the same thing. This is why teachers often encourage their students to sing a melody they are working on.
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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    A set of skills and a mindset combined in me and propelled me to much greater musicality.

    The skill set were fairly pedestrian things. Volume control and dynamics, paralleling the speed of my tremolo with my volume, playing on the same string and all kinds of alternate finger positions to avoid a jarring timbre change, knowing the difference between keeping the beat and keeping in time, etc. Just regular mechanical stuff.

    The mindset was gigantic. I went from trying to express myself to playing expressively. Much different. Play beautifully and expressively what is in the music, what the musical narrative is saying - nobody is all that interested in what I have to say, musically or any other way. But a Carter Family ballad about a tornado that destroyed a school and killed many children, now there are opportunities for expressiveness.

    So for me it was learning specific useful skills, and avoiding expressing myself in favor of expressing the music.
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  31. #18

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Back to the visual arts, if half the actors you see tell sad stories while smiling and happy stories while crying then you might learn to have some problems!
    Watching the facial expressions of someone such as Chris Thile while listening at the same time, and being aware of the melodic and harmonic transitions, well you’re bound to learn something about music.
    Same goes for lyrics. Some songs are so well written that each word and interval has a related emotion. Some don’t.

    Of course musicality can be taught, but it’s not easy.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    This is rich buttered popcorn. Keep going ya’ll. You are writing the Cliff Notes for my next podcast.

  33. #20
    Plays Well With Others Nate Lee's Avatar
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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by clicketyclack View Post
    The other day, my mandolin teacher told me that he could teach technique, but musicality was the “one thing he couldn’t teach.”

    This idea really stuck with me! I teach visual art to kids, and in my field—at least among the people I work with-- we generally consider creativity and interpretation to be teachable skills.

    I’m interested in what other mandolinists think. How do you define musicality? Do you think musicality is teachable? Have you successfully taught a sense of musicality, to yourself or someone else, and how?

    -Julia


    PS. First post in the Cafe! Let me know if I went about this right...
    Congrats on your first post, and welcome to the Cafe!

    Musicality is absolutely a teachable skill, but most teachers don't know how to teach it and a great many of them don't posses the skillset themselves. Most teachers teach notes and chords - not how to be a good musician. Every great mandolin player had to learn those skills, and you can too. I'm happy to hear that you already have a growth mindset about learning, because that will make this a lot easier for you!

    If you're the self study type, the books on this list contain the information you need: https://www.playnately.com/books.html
    The book "The Music Lesson" does a great job defining musicality, and teaches you step-by-step what you need to know to be a great musician. I also recommend "The Practice of Practice" for learning the right practice techniques to succeed.

    If you'd like some personal guidance while learning the skills that make up musicality, sign up for some lessons with me at https://www.playnately.com/ and we'll get you started on the path of mastering musicality, as well as notes and chords. And you don't have to quit your lessons with you other teacher - most of my students learn from more than one teacher and I support that approach.

    Please note: Lesson resume in August. I took the month of July off to have a baby.
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  35. #21

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    I suspect that musicality can be taught, to some extent at least, if the very basics are there. For me, these are (1) playing in time, and (2) being able to hear the others you are playing with and fit in with them. I've known (would-be) players who couldn't manage one or other of these, and couldn't seem to learn. But maybe intensive tuition could get them across that barrier, music teachers might know.

    With someone who can do these, I've seen their musicality improve just from learning a new technique. From time to time I play at ukulele festivals, where the tradition is that the (lowly in my case) performers spend lots of time with the attendees outside performances. I remember last year a lady asking me how I made smooth chord changes, so I showed her a couple of useful techniques. Once she'd grasped them I could immediately hear a step up in her musicality, because a barrier to expressing it had been removed.

    Learning new concepts helps too. Early ukulele players often have no idea of dynamics, or about leaving spaces rather than producing a wall of sound. Being shown that, and learning techniques to produce what they want, can lead to a jump in musicality.

    So I'd say that if you have some musicality, it's possible to teach you to have more (or maybe "wider" is better) musicality. Whether the initial kernel of musicality is innate, so that people who don't have it can never be taught to jump the various hurdles, I don't know.

    And at the other end, there might be levels of musicality that only a few can reach. A previous poster mentioned Chris Thile, and some of the things he does ae outside my musical comprehension. I could analyse a particular piece, work out what he does and reproduce it (less well) but it doesn't feel as if that would help me make the same leaps of the imagination for myself. But maybe I'm wrong - if I did enough of those analyses, perhaps I'd find myself able to make my own original leaps because I'd unconsciously learnt techniques for doing so. Music is pretty mysterious.

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  37. #22
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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by ProfChris View Post
    For me, these are (1) playing in time, and (2) being able to hear the others you are playing with and fit in with them.
    Some of my teachers said that you can get away with a lot as long as you are in tune and in time.

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    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by jim simpson View Post
    I have observed that timing seems impossible to teach to some. You may be able to hit all the notes but without timing, the hot licks aren't worth a lick. I wonder if someone is tone deaf, could they learn to play by ear?
    My teachers loved hitting the right notes.

    But they said, if you had a choice, hit the right rhythm first.

  39. #24

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    Quote Originally Posted by Nate Lee View Post
    Congrats on your first post, and welcome to the Cafe!

    Musicality is absolutely a teachable skill, but most teachers don't know how to teach it and a great many of them don't posses the skillset themselves. Most teachers teach notes and chords - not how to be a good musician. Every great mandolin player had to learn those skills, and you can too. I'm happy to hear that you already have a growth mindset about learning, because that will make this a lot easier for you!
    Thanks Nate, for the welcome and the reading list... and congrats on the baby!

    Should also probably clarify that the mandolin is my second instrument-- started very young on the cello and kept with it for 10+ years. So the context of my teacher's original statement about musicality was that he was glad I already "had it", because he couldn't teach it! ;) When I look back at how I was taught though, it was a patchwork of little ideas from my teachers that gelled into a greater ability to express myself over time... very different from how I learned my framework for visual communication, which was from teachers and/or books that taught it comprehensively and from scratch, as one would a language. Actually, how I was taught art is pretty similar to how I was taught music theory, as opposed to musical performance.

    I'm really enjoying everything that's been posted here so far! Turns out musicality means some very different things to different people... and now I need to listen to @bradlaird's podcast when it comes out.
    Last edited by clicketyclack; Jul-08-2020 at 5:48pm.

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  41. #25

    Default Re: Can you teach musicality?

    The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten is entirely based on the idea of learning musicality instead of how to play a musical instrument. In it the teacher Michael says that he cannot teach the protagonist anything. He can show him some stuff.

    There is no recipe book. There is no formula. The expectation of a step by step manual, a recipe book is one of the biggest obstacles to learning to play music. In that regard musicality cannot be taught.

    One of the biggest steps toward learning to play music for me was learning more than one instrument. Another was playing along with others. Those things got me out of looking for a formula or set of absolute rules.

    Listening to, hearing and playing other styles of music is another huge bridge to learning musicality. Getting past the rules and boundaries of one form and hearing the commonalities and differences teaches a lot about music.

    Another important step is learning to hear and use ears. Even when reading music the ear is king. To lead someone toward musicality they have to be brought to understand that if it does not sound good it is not good music. Putting the fingers in the right place, reading the score, playing all the right notes in the right order are not enough. That is a difficult breakthrough to make. Some people never do. That is probably the single largest step toward learning music instead of going through the motions.

    The other is learning to play, to play with the music, to have fun and experiment with sound and form. That is another step some people never get to. They cannot get past repeating the forms they know and imitating others instead of creating.

    It comes from the learner. A teacher can be a tremendous help but they cannot carry the student there and can only lead them.

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